‘She was our hope’- Family and friends of slain Durban university student Zolile Khumalo share their heartbreak

To her family she was a beautiful girl who had dreams of one day building her mom a big house and buying her a car. To her friends, she was a naïve young woman in love who was enjoying the freedom of being away from home for the first time. To South Africans, she’s become another statistic. Until recently no one outside her close circle of family and friends knew who Zolile Sthembele Khumalo was – now the name of the first-year quantity surveying student is all over social media and news reports. Zolile (21) was shot and killed at her residence at Durban’s Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) in May this year – allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, Thabani Mzolo (23). Mzolo, a former student at the university, was arrested after he allegedly confessed to the killing on Facebook.

Zolile’s family didn’t even know she’d been dating and the first time they heard about the relationship is when they heard the terrible news. Her parents, Comfort (65) and Philisiwe Khumalo, are devastated and not coping with their loss, family spokesperson Mabongi Myeni says. “When I broke the news to her mother she was getting ready to sleep and I could see her world crumbling.

 “Hours later she told us she didn’t believe her daughter was gone because she’d just called her to check up on her. She said Zolile told her she was looking forward to writing a test the next day and was her usual laughing, bubbly self. There was no indication anything was bugging her.”

 Mabongi, a cousin of the deceased, believes Zolile hid her relationship with Mzolo from her family because of her strict upbringing and the fear of being reprimanded. “We only learnt about their relationship when we were told what had happened. We all treated her like a minor – we didn’t envisage she would engage in love affairs because we were planning to perform her umemulo as a sign to thank her for preserving her virginity and respecting the family.” The family had high hopes for Zolile – her second name, Sthembele, even means hopes. But all the hopes and dreams her family had for her died the day she was killed.

Tragedy seems to follow Zolile’s family. Her parents had seven children but five have passed away of various illnesses over the past 20 years. Now they’ve lost their sixth child in the most terrible way imaginable, leaving them with just one daughter, Senamile, who is still in high school.

 Mabongi says the family finds it “bizarre” the Khumalos keep losing their children when they are at tertiary education level.

“Zolile is the fourth child to die while at tertiary [level]. The others died while they were on the verge of completing their studies. They got sick. We can’t get our heads around this scenario,” says Mabongi, who refuses to go into detail about the siblings’ illnesses.

The Khumalo family, who live in Eshowe in northern KZN, also lost two children at a very young age. Now they ’re going through the grieving process again. Philisiwe (64) says Zolile had big dreams.

“She wanted to do right by me and the family and r e n o v a t e t h e family home,” she says.

“She’d point at passing cars and say when she was done with school she would buy one for me. She loved her family so much.” Zolile’s death has shattered her friends at the university. Her roommate, who isn’t being named to protect her, witnessed the shooting and is currently undergoing counselling, while a few other friends have moved out of the residence in fear of their lives. One of the friends, who asks not to be named, tells DRUM Zolile and Mzolo started dating around March last year. At first the pair was inseparable.

“They spent a lot of time together, all loveydovey. “They seemed to go out all the time and one day we plucked up the courage to ask Zolile where Thabani got all his money from because he was still doing his third year, studying electrical engineering. “She told us he came from a wealthy family and money was no problem.”

It wasn’t long before her boyfriend started showing signs of jealousy, Zolile’s friends allege.

“He suddenly became obsessive and bossy and he would check up on her while we were out.” But Zolile would forgive him, the friend adds. “She really loved him.” Just weeks before she died she started acting differently, telling her friends she was done with her relationship. She kept to herself, going from lectures straight back to res instead of hanging out with her friends on campus. It was like she just wanted to make sure she didn’t see him, the friend says.

Pictures of Zolile and Mzolo posing with guns surfaced shortly after her death. They were taken when the couple was out together, which sent chills down her friends’ spines and prompted them to warn her to be careful. Now Zolile is dead and KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbhele says authorities are looking into the ownership of the guns the pair was posing with.

“The guns were taken for ballistic tests which should reveal the owner, if they were licensed,” she says. Mzolo’s friends were equally shocked at the news of Zolile’s death. One of his friends tells DRUM he often spoke about his relationship with Zolile and how much he loved her. He even told them about his plans to marry her once he finished his in-service training as an engineer.

“I was shocked and dismayed when I heard what he allegedly did,” the friend says. “He always came across as a humble, loving and caring guy. It never crossed my mind something was amiss between the two. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that post on Facebook claiming he’d killed her.”

Zolile’s death has again put the spotlight on violence against women in the country, just weeks after Sandile Mantsoe was sentenced for Karabo Mokoena’s death. Deputy police minister Bongani Mkongi, who attended Mzolo’s bail hearing, has urged women to speak out against their abusers. Meanwhile, MUT has vowed to tighten security at their outsourced residences following the tragedy. New security measures will include metal detectors at entrances to residences, the university’s vice chancellor and principal, Dr Enoch Duma Malaza says.

“This should be completed within a month.” Yet this brings little comfort to Zolile’s family, who now has to learn to live without their ray of sunshine – their beautiful child of hope. Thabani Mzolo appeared briefly in the Durban Magistrate’s Court on a charge of murder. He’s in custody and was due back in the dock on 17 May.